The Underlying Contract of Professional Sports

The Detroit Lions were not a very good team so attendance for games was often low (from wikimedia.org).

The Detroit Lions were not a very good team so attendance for games was often low (from wikimedia.org).

Growing up in Michigan, I am a devout fan of the Detroit Lions football team. When I was younger, I remember being so excited to go to the Lions football games with my family. My excitement made the hour and a half car ride feel like a mere minutes. Unfortunately, most of the games I attended ended in a loss since the Detroit Lions were not what one would consider a great team. During this time the stadium, Ford Field, was not anywhere near capacity. As the team has progressively improved over the past few years, I have noticed a dramatic increase in attendance. In regards to the business aspect of the Lions, a well-performing team will increase attendance, leading to an increase in revenue. This observation has brought me to an interesting conclusion: there exists a form of social contract between the fans and the team. Fans benefit the team by generating revenue, which increases or decreases depending on the performance of the team. This is an application of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s idea of a social contract, originating from his book On the Social Contract.

Rousseau held that a social contract should be made between rulers and the people (from wikimedia.org).

Rousseau held that a social contract should be made between rulers and the people (from wikimedia.org).

The social contract, as described by Rousseau, is an agreement between individuals or groups in a community which exists for their mutual gain and survival. The individuals involved in the social contract abandon their individual freedoms for a collective group. The group makes decisions based on the general will of the individuals. In this social contract, members desire to make the contract beneficial for all because all members are regarded as equals. Individuals have no rights or freedoms since they are sacrificed for the welfare of the group. This social contract allows the group to be able to think and act with both rationality and morally. Applying this theory to government, Rousseau conveyed in On the Social Contract the rulers of a group derive their power through the consent of the governed.

When applying Rousseau’s concept to teams and their fan bases, the rulers are the team itself and those who are ruled are the fans. These two entities enter a contract in which they are both given incentives to perform their duties. The obligation of the team is to perform well while that of the fans is to support the team through attending games and purchasing merchandise. If the team is winning, the fans enjoy going to games and are more inclined to purchase merchandise, financially benefiting the team. Professional sports teams are businesses and due to Rousseau’s contract, the amount of revenue is a direct result from performance. There exists an obligation for a team to support their fan base, involving keeping fan-favorite players, improving stadiums, and of course, winning.

Despite having potential with star players (Kevin Durant pictured) the Seattle SuperSonics moved to Oklahoma City (from wikimedia.org).

Despite having potential with star players (Kevin Durant pictured) the Seattle SuperSonics moved to Oklahoma City (from wikimedia.org).

However, these contracts are not set in stone as is the case with the professional basketball team the Seattle SuperSonics who became the Oklahoma City Thunder. The SuperSonics had the potential to become a talented team but there was not enough fan support in Seattle to make it financially enticing for the team to stay. Therefore, the team moved to Oklahoma City and the outcome was much more profitable. This social contract was broken by the fans for not supporting a decent team with great potential and the team for moving cities. Teams with little support face this struggle with Rousseau’s contract as moving to a new city with a different fan base may be financially preferable.

Money in the prime incentive for a team as a business to perform well (from wikimedia.org).

Money in the prime incentive for a team as a business to perform well (from wikimedia.org).

Overall, teams have an obligation to their fans to perform well and fans have an obligation to support their team. This mutualistic relationship often ends in financial gain for the team. If the social contract is broken, it is detrimental to both parties. There is a matter of preservation as well. Without the fan support, a team is forced to move locations or cease to exist at all. Either of these outcomes completely destroys a fan base. A social contract not only benefits both parties but continues their existence. Even supporting a team while they are down in the long run helps to bring them to success. Even while a team is under-performing it needs fans to support efforts to improve. I like to think it is because of the loyal supporters of the Detroit Lions that now whenever I attend a game I am greeted with a sea of fans.

One thought on “The Underlying Contract of Professional Sports

  1. First of all, I really enjoyed reading your post. It was very thought-out and well-worded. Your connection between the Lions players and their fans (and teams and their fans in general) definitely was interesting to read about, and you did a great job of connecting it to the social contract readings. Along the same lines, I think about our football team this season, and how the lack of success “supposedly” should be resulting in lack of attendance, but instead, the attendance and fan following has not suffered much at all. This being said, I believe your argument only applies to professional teams, not collegiate teams.

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